Making Progress toward a Nuclear Weapon Free World; the role Mexico has played

Alfonso Garcia Robles shared the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize with Alva Myrdal of Sweden.

On the momentous occasion of the entry into force of the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), January 22, 2021, I would like to share some reflections on the past and future of independent, collective action by non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWSs)

The drive to achieve a ban treaty was not the first such intervention by NNWSs in nuclear affairs; nor will it be the last. There is a long, honorable history of independent, collective actions and, in spite of the landmark achievement of entry into force of the TPNW, there is an indisputable need for further such action.

This review of past action centers on Mexico, but is not meant in any way to detract from the bold actions taken by other NNWSs, many taken together with Mexico, but some without. I speak from direct experience of promoting several of these initiatives as a representative of first national legislators and then city mayors. The openness to and respectful consideration of ideas from the nongovernmental world, or in my case the quasi-governmental world, is one of the hallmarks of Mexican diplomacy.

The father of Mexican disarmament diplomacy is Alfonso García Robles. He was recognized as the driving force behind the creation of the Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (LANWFZ), for which he received the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize. Having experienced the Cuba Missile Crisis at close quarters, a major region of the world for the first time made it crystal clear that it wanted no part in the nuclear rivalries among the nuclear powers. Other regions followed; a majority of the countries in the world are now members of such nuclear-weapon-free zones.

My first encounter with Garcia Robles was in the context of the 1983–88 Six Nations Peace Initiative. This initiative was at the heads-of-government level, but was directed by a committee made up of the leaders’ personal representatives. President Miguel de la Madrid chose Garcia Robles as his representative. Parliamentarians for Global Action had pulled the group together, and was invited to take part in all the committee meetings. At a time when nuclear explosions were being conducted on a monthly basis and all USA-USSR negotiations had collapsed, the Six called for the resumption of talks and promoted a test ban. President Gorbachev had announced a testing moratorium, and prolonged it in response to the appeal of the Six. The Six went further, and called for mutual verification of a bilateral moratorium. When the US balked at the idea, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Soviet Academy of Sciences agreed, at a meeting facilitated by Parliamentarians for Global Action, to go forward independently. By 1985, seismometers were operating near both the Semipalatinsk and Nevada test sites.

Among the people Garcia Robles had invited to Oslo to take part in the Peace Prize ceremony, was Dr. William Epstein. (Bill, an international legal expert, had done the lion’s share of the drafting of the LANWFZ treaty.) It was Bill who I turned to when I came up with the idea of using the amendment provisions of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) to force the NWS to pay attention to the international movement for a comprehensive ban on nuclear explosions. Bill went straight to Alfonso and the race was on, or in Alfonso’s diplomatic terminology, we began to “make haste slowly.”

Three progressively-stronger General Assembly resolutions later, diplomats from six NNWSs, led by Garcia Robles, formally proposed an amendment to the PTBT on the 25th anniversary of the treaty. The treaty actually called for negotiations of a CTBT, but after a quarter of a century, the patience of the NNWSs had finally run out. Within six months, a third of the states parties had formally requested that a conference be convened to consider the amendment, which aimed at making the partial ban comprehensive. The three NWSs parties did not willingly fulfill their depositary function to convene said conference. Garcia Robles’ successor in Mexico, Miguel Marin Bosch, turned up the heat at the 1990 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon), by refusing to agree to a final declaration which did not advocate CTBT negotiations.

The PTBT Amendment Conference was at last convened in January 1991. While it was underway, US members of Parliamentarians for Global Action, in both houses of Congress, for the first time submitted legislation aimed at cutting off funding for nuclear weapon testing. Once the legislation was adopted in 1992, US (and British) testing never resumed again, and Gorbachev revived his moratorium.

With the US and Britain threatening to veto the amendment, the Amendment Conference decided, by an overwhelming vote, to empower its president, Ali Alatas, Foreign Minister of Indonesia, to reconvene the conference when more “auspicious circumstance prevailed.” When the new Clinton Administration was slow to act on its campaign promise to pursue a test ban, Alatas scheduled a meeting of the states parties at UN Headquarters to mobilize support. (He, naturally, had Mexico’s full backing.) In Geneva, on the morning the consultations were to begin in New York, the United States announced its readiness to begin test ban negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD, for short). At the New York meeting, Alatas made note of the US announcement and adjourned the meeting: mission accomplished.

In 1996, President Clinton was the first to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. However, when the 2010 NPT RevCon was held, the treaty had still not entered into force, in part due to the failure of the US to ratify it. The best that review could do was recommend that the CD agree on an agenda. But, that body had not conducted substantial negotiations since the CTBT was completed. Indeed, it couldn’t even adopt a program of work, primarily because even that modest step could be vetoed by any one of its 40 member states. Mayors for Peace developed a proposal to get around the impasse at the CD by having the UN General Assembly establish an open-ended working group in Geneva to put the disarmament diplomats to work under veto-free conditions. My first stop with the proposal was at the Mexican Mission in Geneva to meet with Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba. Within a month, there was a group of NNWSs, including some US allies, hard at work drafting a General Assembly resolution.

This momentum stalled in New York, when the Canadian Government put a gag on its disarmament ambassador (on “orders from Washington”, it was rumored). A related initiative did lead to the adoption of a work program in the Conference on Disarmament the following year — but that agreement broke down in less than a year. With this further humiliation of the CD, the effort for an open-ended working group was revived by Mayors for Peace and Reaching Critical Will, with Austria and Mexico taking the lead. After the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the General Assembly went ahead and created the working group.

When the Working Group first met in Geneva in 2016, it was still unclear what would be its agenda or purpose. The International Campaign against Nuclear Weapons soon provided an answer to that question: lay the foundations for negotiations of a ban treaty. And so the Working Group did. At the recommendation of its Working Group, the 2016 UN General Assembly scheduled a conference to negotiate a ban treaty. Mexican diplomats played a leading role in drafting the resulting TPNW and Mexico was among the first to sign and ratify it. This, and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN, was celebrated by peace activists in the Zocalo, the heart of Mexico City, in December 2017.

It would be a grave mistake to assume that, now that the treaty has entered into force, the NNWSs have done their part and the rest is up to the NWSs. Yes, the ball is in their court, but they are refusing to play ball. So, the nuclear danger persists, indeed has intensified. To have a chance of making it intact to that great day when the TPNW is universally adopted and nuclear weapons are finally eliminated worldwide, a concerted effort must be made to reduce the risk of nuclear war in the meantime. One idea that is seen as a logical step toward a nuclear weapon free world is universal acceptance of the perspective that, since there are no winners in a nuclear war, no one should ever start one.

China and India have consistently pledged never to initiate nuclear war. This is significant because when they clash over their disputed border, as they do periodically, the world does not have to fear escalation to nuclear war. Even though Pakistan does not have a policy against first use, the fact that India does has helped to defuse their confrontations over Kashmir. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the other nuclear powers; when they clash nuclear escalation is always a grave danger. But it needn’t remain that way,

Just two days ago, a new President was inaugurated in Washington, who, as Vice President, was a leading advocate of no first use. What priority this is currently accorded in his overloaded agenda is anyone’s guess. But a forceful intervention from the non-nuclear world could certainly help to heighten its salience. Might this be a cause Mexico could now champion? Let’s hope so!

The historical lesson is that when NGOS and NNWS governments work together great things can be accomplished despite the initial opposition of the NWSs. Let’s continue to apply that lesson!


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